Myth and Meaning
History and its Intersection with Myth and Literature
this illustrated lecture is one version of an introductory
presentation I have honed over the years
In the classes we classicists teach, the ancient Greek world is not dead –
we constantly celebrate its enduring spirit, which has seeped down through
the ages in the literature and art that has shaped so much of our modern
world. It strikes a reverence in us that approaches a kind of “religious”
In the mind of an
ancient Greek, history, literature, and mythology peacefully co-exist, no
lines drawn between them. We tend to compartmentalize such things - but
remember, even fifth century Greeks – cosmopolitan Athenians! -
lived in a world where
political leaders consulted religious oracles on matters of State, athletes
competed at games dedicated to Olympian gods, and philosophers attracted
Going back even further in time,
we’ll see how
it is not so
easy to distinguish myth from history, and who would want to? In fact, the
Greeks, whose entire reality was closely connected to the natural world,
cheerfully allowed the mythic and the real to intersect at will.
What is even
cooler is that recent discoveries have allowed us to see that material
evidence recently uncovered and conserved by archaeologists supports,
clarifies and enlarges the world bequeathed two thousand years ago by their
great literary history. Now we can do more than just walk through the same
forests, swim in the same waters, climb the same mountains as did the
ancient Greeks. Through the literature and the mythology of those Greeks we
can hear the whispers and see the shadows of the very people we read about
in their own haunts.
In this introductory lecture, originally called "Orestes' Trek" (but since
expanded) we will travel the path from myth to history,
from the Age of Heroes to the Historical Era, tracing the ubiquitous use of
myth along the way, as we see it color our perception of significant ancient
sites such as Mycenae, Athens, Delphi, and others. But we start our journey
not on the mainland, but on Crete…
from 450 BC depicts Zeus' abduction of Europa. According to myth,
they first made love in Gortyna under a plane tree which never lost
its leaves thereafter.
This sign in Gortyna, Crete
proclaims this particular plane tree
as THE sacred tree!
Europa bears King Minos, ruler of Crete,
who gives his name to the Minoan Age (coined by Arthur
Evans as he excavated the ruins of Cnossos at the turn of the century). Here
are some pictures of the reconstruction of the archaeological site of
image, a picture of girls and boys jumping over a bull as if in some sort of
dangerous ritual, may have given rise to the story that a man-eating
monster, half-bull/half-man called the Minotaur, lived in the bowels of the
palace and was fed a steady diet of Athenian youths and maidens! The great
King Theseus, before he became king, sailed to Crete and dispatched the
Louvre shows. There are many other myths associated with
the island of Crete and the Palace of Knossos...
has made a wooden model of what the palace might have looked like, and
indeed it looks like a labyrinth (can't publish it here but it is displayed
in the Heraklion Museum in Crete). But the real
the original labyrinth was Daedalus, who escaped from the island of Crete
with his son Icarus. He made wings for himself and the boy, but Icarus flew
too close to the sun and his wings melted.
When Theseus sailed from Crete (after killing the
minotaur), he stopped off at Naxos, where he abandoned Ariadne (she in turn
was picked up by Dionysos, who married her). Theseus "forgot" to exchange
the black sails for white ones, as he promised to do to signal success to
his father, who was waiting on Cape Sounion for news of his son. When King
Aegeus saw the black sails, he assumed the worst. In grief,
he plunged headlong from the cliff to his death into
the sea that now bears his name.
The Temple of Poseidon
at Sounion is
dated to 440s BC, same architect who built the
After the Heroic
Age (Theseus) and before the Classical Age (Pericles) falls the Bronze Age
of Greece (which roughly corresponds to the same time period as the end of
the Minoan civilization on Crete).
Storied and well-preserved Bronze Age sites on the mainland include
Mycenae is the home of The House of Atreus, the cursed
family that inspired so much fodder for the playwrights and (other) poets of
ancient Greece. How does it fit in with our theme of the intersection of
myth and literature and archaeology and history? First, the literary Agamemnon is specifically referred to as the King of nearby Argos, not
Mycenae – Aeschylus is providing a mythic birth for the very real fifth
century political alliance between Argos and Athens. But Mycenae is the
archaeological site that corresponds to the mythic home of Agamemnon (as
well as his father and son).
The Lion Gate
is the oldest monumental
sculpture in Europe (not in the world...just in Europe). We have always
assumed that these are the same Mycenean lions known from over 600 other art
works (perhaps their steatite heads, now missing, faced forward).
serves a structural purpose: it fills (and therefore masks) the triangular
space created above the lintel in order to reduce the pressure of the
tremendous weight of the stones. The forepaws of the figures rest on a row
of blocks carved above a double plinth, which may represent altars. Their
paws flank a single pillar, perhaps representing the propylon or entry room,
symbol of the power they guard. Perhaps this was the heraldic symbol of the
Royal House of Atreus. And note how the composition of the scene perfectly
fits the space it is designed to occupy.
Grave Circle A:
6 shaft graves, which contained 19 bodies: 9 men, 8 women, 2 children. Five
of these Royal Graves were discovered with their embalmed bodies and grave
goods intact by Schliemann and
nearly fill the main gallery of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
The "mask of Agamemnon" is so
named because when the awed Schliemann found it he telegraphed to the King
of Greece: "I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon." In fact, Schliemann
had stumbled upon royal graves from a period even earlier than the Homeric
Age he sought.
The stone ramp leading up to the
megaron. The use of this part of the citadel dates back to Neolithic times
(3000 BC); in 1350 BC the first walls of this citadel went up. By 1100 BC,
it was all gone in the aftermath of the Dorian invasion. But at its heyday
in the centuries surrounding the time of the Trojan War, Mycenae was the
most powerful of Aegean citadels, giving its name to the entire Age and
has a tripartite arrangement, in some ways reminiscent of Minoan palatial
structures on Crete. The first two rooms serve as anterooms to the
or throne room.
Here is a shot of the threshold block at the entry of the
system of rooms constituting the royal quarters. Bronze fittings would have
been set in the square holes hewn in the stone threshold.
corbelled rock entrance, path 18 meters deep; extension added in 1200 BC to
protect water source
dates to about 1300 BC.
Treasury of Atreus:
also called Tomb of Agamemnon – dromos is 35 meters long, 6 meters wide -
tholos is 14.5 meters wide, 13 meters high – 33 concentric courses of
corbelled rock – designed for natural camoflauge -
One of the two lintel stones
weighs 240,000 lbs and measures 8 x 5 x 1 meters – dated to 1350 BC.
birthplace of Heracles (note the Cyclopeian Walls). Homer Iliad 19: Zeus declared
that a descendant of Perseus about to be born would rule over Mycenae and
Tiryns, and Hera found a way to cause an outcome that didn’t involve yet
another bastard son of Zeus’ from gaining power. Out of jealousy, she
persuaded her daughter Elithyia to prevent Alcmene from giving birth to
Heracles before Hera could contrive to hasten the premature birth of his
cousin Eurystheus, also a descendant of Perseus. LATER IN DELPHI – we’ll
see how Heracles gets his name. He is a Panhellenic hero – will pop up everywhere
sandy Pylos (Homer) – Telemachus’ bath in Odyssey IV. HANDOUT
The Theater of Dionysus:
dates back to 6th century but the structure we see was designed
between 342-326 BC, 64 tiers of seats, 17000 seating capacity.
site of first murder trial – of Ares, for killing a son of Poseidon for
raping Ares’ daughter – fitting for the trial of Orestes the matricide, and
the birth of democracy… Pausanias 1.21.7
Parthenon: Temple dedicated to Athena,
patron goddess of the city.
Elgin Marbles – 1816
Elgin served as the British
Ambassador to the Ottoman Court and systematically removed sculpture,
architectural fragments and inscriptions from the Athenian acropolis while
Athens was under Turkish rule.
Temple of Zeus at Olympia:
Pausanias tells us Alkamenes was the artist 460s BC
complicated site, temples/shrines built one on top of the other. wooden cult
statue of Athena, sword of Mardonius (Battle of Plataea, 479 BC), a folding
chair made by Daedalus, golden lamp of Kallimachus that needed new oil once
a year, with a bronze palm-tree acting as a chimney...on the site of
Athens’ Mycenean palace, built 421-406
Temple of Athena Nike: Nike Apteros
The frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis (built during the
Peloponnesian War, 427-425) trumpets the Athenian victory at that very
Battle of Plataea - it is most remarkable for the frieze of a Temple
(especially one dedicated to Athena!) to relate a real - not mythological -
battle. We are reminded that "Nike" means "Victory."
We leave Athens
and go north...to
When the world was first created, Zeus sent forth two
eagles from far-flung corners of the earth in search of the center of the
world, they met here, over Delphi. This
omphalos, Greek for "belly-button," marks
sacred Delphi as that center. The original omphalos sat in the adyton, or
inner chamber of the Temple of Apollo. But before Apollo, the site was
sacred only to the Earth mother-goddess Gaia. Then a great serpent laid
waste to the land, and in the Hymn to Apollo, we learn how the god Apollo
killed it in its den…here - where
the gorge Arkoudorema divides the
The god established his cult here at Delphi and spoke
through a priestess called the Pythia – the power of the sun (god) rotted
away the carcass of the great serpent – the Greek word for “rot” is Puthein
– thereby giving its name to both our Python and the Greeks’ Pythia.
Sacred City of Delphi - but the
Sacred Way winds its
way up the mountain in a series of serpentine turns, offering showcases at
every turn for the votive offerings left behind by grateful city-states and
island colonies. Delphi achieved the height of its fame during the 6th
century BC, as Greece passed from the Archaic to the Classical Age. But
stories from before and since abound: an old tale tells that Aesop met his
death by being thrown from these very rocks, the punishment for mocking the
Political nature of the site:
Sacred Way was once lined with tens of buildings called "Treasuries,"
literally "place where gold things are put," which housed the valuable and
beautiful votive offerings provided by individual city-states and colonies.
Athenian Treasury: reconstructed by the French - originally built as a
votive commemorating their victory at Marathon in 490 BC. the metopes
depicting Heracles' feats are outnumbered only by those depicting Theseus, the great
Athenian hero, local boy done good. (Theseus' story was rewritten in the 6th
century to be more Heraclean - to universalize the Attic hero). The rear
wall was covered with more than 150 inscriptions, including a hymn to Apollo
complete with musical notation.
metopes of the Athenian Treasury to those
(misnamed Thesion) in Athens. As a political oracle, Delphi served states,
not individuals, and was rewarded by same. This frieze from the
Siphnian Treasury (525 BC) survives and is on display
in the Delphi Museum: it tells the story of how Herakles once came here and
challenged Apollo for his tripod, the seat of his power. (The proscenium of
the theater also sports Heraclean motifs – dedicated at the time Nero
visited since Nero fancied himself a modern day Heracles)
The Sphinx of the Naxians, 570-560 BC (right), towered
into the air right next to the
Stoa of the
Athenians - the 8 foot tall (2 1/2 meter) sphinx sits atop a 44-flute Ionic
column that towered 35 feet (11 1/2 meters) into the air. Which reminds us
of that OTHER sphinx, the one whose riddle Oedipus solved on his way to
Thebes after getting an oracle from Delphi. After hearing that he would
murder his father and marry his mother, Oedipus tried to run away from his
fate, but instead ran smack into it – in the first recorded instance of road
rage, Oedipus kills a stranger who turns out to be his father, meets and
outsmarts the sphinx at Thebes, and usurps his father’s role as both king
and husband – as he married his mother.
Tripod of Plataea celebrated the defeat of the
Persians by 31 Greek city-states and was financed by 1/10 their spoils.
Three intertwined serpents made of gold supported a gold cauldron.
Constantine the Great removed the monument to his Hippodrome, and fragments
of it are still on display today in Istanbul.
Of course, the site of Delphi
also had great spiritual significance for the Greeks.
Suppliants who came to seek the advice of the oracle ritually washed
their hands and hair at the
Castalian Spring before entering the sacred precinct. Orestes, as a murderer, had to wash the whole of his body.
archaic (590-600 BC) fountain house of the Castalian Spring
was surrounded by
benches, and the marble-lined basin collected the mountain spring water via its
bronze lion-head water spouts. Even today, the water collected at this spot
is said to have magical healing properties.
Temple of Apollo. The temple as it survives dates only
to the fourth century BC, but the foundation is original to an earlier
version from the sixth century, which replaces an even older seventh century
version. There would have been two rows of Ionic columns forming an interior
colonnade within the Doric peripteral temple (6 X 15 columns). The
pedimental sculpture described by Pausanias has never been found.
Source of inspiration, security, knowledge to Greeks...Political, religious, dramatic, literary significance.
And although it was said to be housed in the Temple of Apollo, no evidence
of it has ever been found.
The Rock of the Sibyl Herophile, immediately below the
Temple terrace, marks the spot where Pausanias says the Sibyl Herophile
composed the Hymn to Apollo - while under the influence of the god himself
Apollodorus: It was the oracle of Delphi who named
Heracles Heracles. Born Alcides,
The priestess at Delphi renamed him Herakles (“Glory of Hera”) and ordered
him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform
the 12 labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were
accomplished, he would be immortal.
Euripides' Ion is set in front of the temple of Apollo
Orestes comes to this very temple in his flight from
the Furies in the third play of Aeschylus' Oresteia
Pindar actually wrote his Hymn to Apollo while sitting
inside on an iron chair.
“if Croesus attacked the Persians,
a mighty empire would fall.” The irony is that it was his own empire of
Lydia that fell.
Socrates: no man is wiser than
is due to Themistokles' powers of persuasion that the Athenians suffered
no loss of life when the Persians marched into Athens and burned it to the
ground. The Oracle of Delphi had warned that everything Athenian would be
burned to the ground except for what lay behind a wooden wall: some
thought that meant that the populace should huddle within the walls of the
Acropolis and try to outlast a Persian siege. But Themistokles rightly
concluded that the "wooden wall" referred to the battleline of the great
Athenian warships. So when the Persians did march into Athens and burn
down the city, the women and children had already been transported safely
to the nearby city of Troezen (mythical birthplace of Theseus), the old
men were taken to the nearby island of Salamis, and only those few who
remained behind the walls lost their lives. See Herodotus Book 8 and
Aeschylus' play The
ancient accounts of this battle.
390s AD – Emperor Theodosius III eradicates the Oracle at Delphi, the
Olympic Games, the Eleusinian Mysteries…all in the name of eradicating all
recall that the institution of theater grew out of a celebration of nature -
all Greek theaters are sculpted into the side of a hill and offer a
spectacular view so that the audience never forgets theater's roots. But few
theaters can top this view of the Sea of Olives at Delphi! The theater is
one of the structures used in the celebration of the Pythian games,
in 582 BC in honor of Apollo’s slaying of the Python.
The poet Pindar will make the games famous in his collection of Pythian
Odes. Another is the
The Pythian Games are the second pan-Hellenic
Games established in honor of an Olympian god, the second of four:
Zeus), Nemea (573, Zeus), Isthmia (560, Poseidon).
Literary refs: In Aeschylus'
Orestes: “And we both speak Parnassian,
both try for the native tones of Delphi” (to deceive his mother into
thinking he is dead). Orestes in Sophocles’ Electra chooses the Pythian
Games (Delphi equivalent to "Olympic") as the site of his made up death:
in his made-up tale, he dies in a chariot race accident while pursuing the
glory all Greeks would risk their lives for.
(covered track where the athletes practiced running), the palaestra (the
outdoor track) survive of the training area for the athletes in the Pythian
also is this
the best preserved Greek pool of the Classical period. Cold water ran down
from the mountain, poured out through lion-head spouts (note the holes in
the wall) into ten basins (along the wall), and the surplus water ran into
the pool, where the athletes swam and bathed. Decadent hot baths were
added later by the Romans but have not survived.
The Athletes' Training Area lies to the NW of
Marmara, or the
of Athena (1.5 km from Delphi) consists of the ruins of
several buildings, most of which date to the early 4th century BC,
including the Treasury of Massilia, our Marseilles. This
tholos (~390 BC)
gets all the attention because it was partially reconstructed in 1938, but
no one knows its true function. The original Temple of Athena Pronaia ("In
Front of the Temple - of Apollo"), sometimes called Athena Pronoia
("Forethought"), was destroyed by the earthquake in 480 BC that scared the
wits out of the Persians (Herodotus 8.39.2. Herodotus also tells us that
when the Persians attacked, the gods punished them for their impiety by
bringing the mountain down upon their heads – modern day Greeks are
concerned about that too: hence these signs –
danger: rock slides, and the
international sign for no horn-beeping!
Corycian Cave: high up Mt. Parnassos – Pausanias’ favorite cave! – worth
Sacred to Pan, Dionysus, nymphs (according to ancient inscriptions)
Line 22 of the Eumenides – orgiastic dancing in honor of Apollo
French one month in 1969. tremendous number and range of objects from all
periods of antiquity: a rare Neolithic male steotopygous figurine,
Mycenean shards, bone flutes, iron and bronze rings, bronze statuettes,
50,000 terra cotta figurines from the classical period and 24,000
astragoloi, or "knucklebones" (used for astragolomancy, or "prophecy by
took refuge in the cave from the Persians (Herodotus, 8.36) in the 5th
century BC and from the Germans in 1943, and during the Greek War of
Independence, too. King Otto and Queen Amalfia got a royal tour of it -
with 100 torchbearers!
SPECTACULAR VIEWS OF THE PLATEAU OF LIVADI:
it is not hard to understand why the ancients thought that Deucalion's
boat grounded on one of these summits after the Flood. HANDOUT
Mountains figure prominently in the legend and lore of the Greeks, but none so
much as Mt. Olympos, where we will end our tour.
Otus and Ephialtes
tried to pile Ossa upon Pelion
(here's a chunk) to reach heaven.
sacred home of the gods, but apparently Homer never climbed it:
"Olympus, the reputed seat
Eternal of the gods,
which never storms
Disturb, rains drench, or
snow invades, but calm
and cloudless shines with purest day."
Odyssey 6.41-46; trans: William Cowper 1791)
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